Heat rising, Lakers reeling
Two-time defending champs in disarray while Miami starting to hit its stride
LOS ANGELES -- We can't call this Christmas clobbering of the Lakers the pinnacle of the Heat's season, because lately, beating the Lakers is as devalued as Las Vegas real estate.
The Heat's 96-80 win couldn't even match the Bucks' 19-point margin of victory in Staples Center four days earlier. Lakers-Heat felt more like a statement loss than a statement victory. The Heat had already moved ahead of the Lakers on the championship-readiness scale, something that was reinforced rather than announced Saturday, then reconfirmed by none other than Kobe Bryant.
"They're playing better basketball than we are," Bryant said. "They're playing as a unit, they're playing with a sense of urgency, they're executing extremely well. They're doing everything that we're not doing."
This doesn't make the Heat the new favorites or eliminate the Lakers from contention. It just shows that the Heat have found something that works and have gone to that formula repeatedly, while the Lakers keep encountering more friction that prevents them from coasting off the past two championships.
"Miami Heat basketball is all about, first of all, defense," Wade said. "And it's all about system, and helping each other out. It's not a one-on-one defensive system. It's five guys being on one string at one time together. That's what we did tonight."
They used help most times Bryant tried to back his way into the lane. They made Pau Gasol take high-arching jump shots over outstretched arms rather than maneuver around the rim. They deflected and stole passes, including one Derek Fisher lob that LeBron snatched out of the air with two hands. It's telling that in such a lopsided game the only two stats categories the Heat dominated were steals (9-4) and blocked shots (4-1).
On offense, Chris Bosh dominated early, LeBron had a smooth triple-double of 27 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists, and Wade played third man with 18 points and six assists. If any of the Big Three were stifled, the ball kept moving to find the man neglected by the defense, most often Mario Chalmers (13 points).
The Heat have gone from introductions to setbacks to adjustments to realization to fully functioning. At this point, all that's left is maintenance and progression. They know what enables them to win, it's just a matter of staying committed to it, like a diet you know will drop pounds.
"Our mindset and our preparation, all of that has to be first with the defensive side of the floor," Erik Spoelstra said.
Message received. They've held all 15 opponents in December to fewer than 100 points, including eight teams to under 85.
Good defense leads to easy transition points, a topic James lights up just talking about. And when those aren't available, the Heat can settle into an offense in which the roles are more clearly delineated.
Bosh has come the furthest, after he admittedly struggled to get his bearings in the offense.
"Chris has found his niche," Wade said. "He ain't passing. So he found that all he has to do is score and rebound the ball and leave the passing up to me and Bron."
The Heat can joke about things like that now without worrying about it turning into a huge off-day news story about shot distribution because they're winning games. The Lakers are actually trying to stir things up with their words.
Phil Jackson said his players have been "distracted" and look as if they lack confidence. He said Gasol was "soft" -- granted, it was in reference to the release on his jump shot, but that's a sensitive word any time it's used in connection with Gasol. An assistant coach called the team "complacent." Kobe seethed at the way the team seems content with winning the past two championships.
The Lakers knew better than to take any shots at the Heat, and Jackson even complimented Spoelstra's defensive tactics in the second quarter. Jackson delivered his line without irony or any subtle digs -- although he kept form by doing it without mentioning Spoelstra by name. In fact the only postgame shot taken by the Lakers was a low blow to the Minnesota Timberwolves from Bryant.
The poor T-Wolves. First LeBron suggests they should be contracted, then Kobe equates them to the Washington Generals by saying the Lakers need to get a win regardless of whether they're playing San Antonio (their actual next opponent, with the best record in the league) or Minnesota. "Yeah, I said it," Bryant said, acknowledging he broke protocol by naming an actual NBA team for his hypothetical scenario.
That's what the Lakers have been reduced to, picking on the bottom of the league instead of lording over the elite. But the 2010-11 Lakers don't deserve to be considered elite themselves until further notice. The only championship moment in this season came when they revealed the newest banner on opening night.
Ever since then they've tried to win by aura more than effort and avoided major criticism because this group has already demonstrated it can win in June. As Bryant put it, "We know what we're capable of doing; that's the problem."
Midway through the second round of the playoffs last season the Lakers hadn't done anything impressive. They squeezed past the neophytes from Oklahoma City in six games and allowed 212 points to an injury-depleted Jazz squad in two games. They didn't look like worthy successors to the illustrious list of Lakers champions. Then it dawned on me that they didn't have to be. All they had to do was outlast what was out there in a diminished Western Conference and survive the challenger from the East. They did, barely.
Good enough isn't good enough this season. The Spurs and Mavericks are better. And do the Lakers really want to see the Thunder in the playoffs now that Oklahoma City has an idea of what to do?
Right now, the best thing the Lakers' championships can buy them is silence. There won't be any talk of Mitch Kupchak coming down to replace Jackson as coach (although it would have been bad-ass of Spoelstra to turn the tables and suggest it), no speculation about which one of the Lakers' core players needs to be traded.
At some point, the Lakers need to purchase victories with defensive effort and offensive patience, two qualities that defined their championships runs.
Until then they'll simply be a group that can claim only two victories against teams with winning records (Chicago at home and 15-14 Portland). They're nothing special. The Heat actually showed more emotion after their late comeback against the Wizards then they did after their victory in the league's showcase matchup against the Lakers.
Bosh sounded less triumphant and more diplomatic when he summed up the win with three words: "We'll take it."